Situated in an industrial part of inner-city Johannesburg is the factory where Laduma Ngxokolo and his team create unique pieces for the luxury knitwear brand MaXhosa by Laduma, one colourful yarn at a time
In the seven years of its existence, the colours and shapes that have become synonymous with MaXhosa by Laduma’s brand iconography are difficult to miss both on and off the runway. In less than a decade, the young designer from Port Elizabeth has achieved what takes others years to accomplish. Outside of his flagship store in Newtown Junction Mall, his pieces can be found stocked all over the world, from Japan to New York. Ngxokolo’s brand has picked up a string of accolades, including Design Indaba’s Most Beautiful Object in South Africa award in 2016 for his Xhosa-inspired shawl, and he was recently commissioned by New York City’s Museum of Modern Art to create a jersey for its Is Fashion Modern? exhibition.
When asked where he finds his inspiration, Ngxokolo cites his hometown in the Eastern Cape, to which he often returns and where his journey as a designer began. Here he created his first-ever piece – a knitted blue jersey – in 2001 with his late mother, who’d just bought a knitting machine. ‘Blue was my favourite colour and the jersey was striped and shaded in light blue, royal blue and cobalt,’ he says of the piece, saying that the experience left him both fascinated and overwhelmed by the idea of turning raw material into a unique design.
The MaXhosa by Laduma brand philosophy is about using only natural materials such as wool, and specifically mohair sourced in Port Elizabeth, which is home to the biggest spinning mill in the country and mohair industry in the world. Ngxokolo’s suppliers source the material, and wash, spin and dye it to his specifications. As per the brand’s design blueprint, only nine colours are used in the making process: yellow, red, blue, beige, pink, turquoise, white, orange and black. From there, the materials are sent to the Jo’burg plant and put into knitting machines to create the fabrics. Prior to that, the team would have already drawn up samples, designs and size variations, and once the fabric’s ready, it’s steamed, cut and assembled before being packed for distribution.
MaXhosa by Laduma consists of a small, multi-functional team, with Ngxokolo acting as the MD and art director, overseeing the brand’s vision every season. His elder sister Tina recently joined the studio as the production manager and creative director of their atelier services. ‘What I didn’t know when I was starting out was the power of including family in the vision, and organically, MaXhosa by Laduma is a family business,’ he says. The production side involves a group of 17 people, who work in sectors ranging from the manufacturing plant to quality control.
In 2014, the company branched out into homeware, after seeing the potential that could come from entering lifestyle spaces. For Ngxokolo, adding rugs to the range was something he felt was an easy direction to take – it wasn’t too conventional and would maintain the high standard seen in the knitwear line. ‘With interior pieces, we know that they’re not informed by trends, can be sold across seasons and will last for centuries,’ he says. ‘When we apply our artwork, we do so knowing that the value we put in them is about more than just selling the product.’
Photographs: Sarah De Pina Production: Sanri Pienaar